Proposed new guidelines recommend that you should not regularly drink more than 14 units over the course of a week. If you do drink as much as 14 units, you should spread it over three days or more, rather than 'saving up' units.
An easy way to cut back on your intake is to have several drink-free days each week.
European law requires manufacturers to state on the label of all alcoholic drinks how much alcohol they contain. This is expressed as ‘percentage alcohol by volume’ (% ABV). Some brands also give the number of units of alcohol the drink contains on the packaging.
One unit is equal to 10ml by volume or 8g by weight, of pure alcohol. This is the amount of alcohol an average adult can process in one hour.
The number of units of alcohol in different drinks varies. It’s also rare that the usual measure your drink comes in will contain just one unit. Here are some common drinks you might order at the bar and how many units they contain.
- One 25ml single measure of spirit (37.5% ABV) is equal to one unit.
- A 175ml (standard) glass of red wine (12% ABV) is equal to two units.
- A pint of beer (5% ABV) contains 2.8 units.
- A pint of cider (6% ABV) contains 3.4 units.
Something else to bear in mind is that the same type of drink can vary in strength between different brands. For example, some wines and lagers contain more alcohol than others. What’s more, bars and restaurants offer a variety of measures. Here are some examples.
These come in measurements of 25ml, 35ml or multiples of these – a double is 50ml, for example.
Wine comes in measurements of 125ml, 175ml or multiples of these – a large glass is 250ml, for example.
If you drink three 250ml glasses of wine, you’re drinking a whole bottle of wine and three times the recommended daily units. It can be easy to do without even realising it.
For more information, see our article ‘The alcohol equation – do you know what you’re drinking?’ And to accurately track how many units you are drinking, try our alcohol units calculator. There are also apps for your phone that can help you keep track.
It takes about one hour for your liver to break down each unit of alcohol. The more you drink, the longer it will take for the effects of alcohol to clear. There are times when not drinking alcohol at all is the safest choice. These include the following.
- Before you plan to drive or when you’re driving – alcohol affects people differently so it’s best not to drink at all.
- Before or when you’re operating machinery or electrical equipment, or doing some DIY.
- Before or during swimming or other active sports.
- When you’re taking certain medicines – always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and ask your pharmacist or GP for advice.
- When you’re pregnant or trying for a baby. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can increase the risk of miscarriage and affect the development of your baby.
Some people find that they cannot drink in a controlled way, and that completely abstaining from alcohol is the safest option for them.
- Alcohol: preventing harmful alcohol use in the community. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), March 2015. www.nice.org.uk
- Alcohol-use disorders: preventing harmful drinking. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), June 2010. www.nice.org.uk
- Statistics on alcohol. England, 2015. Health and Social Care Information Centre. www.hscic.gov.uk, published 25 June 2015
- Alcohol unit guidelines. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, published November 2012
- Alcohol – problem drinking. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, published April 2015
- Ethanol level. Medscape. www.emedicine.medscape.com, published 4 February 2014
- Alcohol-use disorder. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 18 August 2015
- Regulation (EU) no 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2011. Eur-Lex. www.eur-lex.europa.eu, published 22 November 2011
- The food information regulations 2013 guide to compliance. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. www.gov.uk, published November 2012
- Alcohol labelling. Portman Group. www.portmangroup.org.uk, accessed 16 September 2015
- Dealing with a hangover. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, published March 2015
- What is an alcohol unit? Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, published August 2015
- Unit and calorie calculator. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, accessed 16 September 2015
- The sale of alcohol in licensed premises. Business Companion. www.businesscompanion.info, accessed 16 September 2015
- Alcohol and depression. Royal College of Psychiatrists. www.rcpsych.ac.uk, published August 2015
- Dinner only drinking. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, published March 2015
- The drink drive limit. Gov.UK. www.gov.uk, published 28 January 2015
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Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Content Team, October 2015.
This information was updated in January 2016 following revisions to the Department of Health’s guidelines for alcohol consumption.
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